With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.
We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but we’ll wrap up this series with our sixth and final instalment which takes a look at how Ireland fared.
Ireland – 9/10
Whichever way you cut it, it has been a truly remarkable year for Irish rugby. Ireland got their season off to a flying start with a clean sweep of the November Internationals, followed up by a Grand Slam in the Six Nations and a season finale of a Series win in Australia. To back up the exploits of the Men in Green, Irish teams dominated European club competitions, winning both the European Champions Cup and the PRO 14. The structure in place in Ireland is clearly paying dividends, as Ireland reflect on a year that has them sitting comfortably in second place on World Rugby’s rankings table. This time last year the England/All Blacks encounter this November was being hailed as THE game of 2018, but the Ireland/New Zealand fixture a week later is now being billed as the most eagerly anticipated Test of the year.
Ireland came roaring out of the blocks in their season opener last November against South Africa. While many had written off South Africa, it was worth noting that in their last match prior to meeting Ireland, they had lost to the All Blacks by a mere point in a thrilling encounter in Cape Town. However, Ireland literally blew them off the park in a four try romp and recorded their greatest ever winning margin against the Springboks 38-3. Next up Ireland put out a developmental squad against Fiji. While they acquitted themselves well, they almost came unstuck after a purple patch of concentration at the mid-point of the match saw Fiji run in two tries. Nevertheless, it was a valuable lesson for Coach Joe Schmidt’s less experienced charges in how to salvage a win under intense pressure from a very competitive Fijian side. Their final match of November, also showed a worrying trend of losing concentration, as they took on a struggling Argentinian outfit. Although by the hour mark, Ireland were comfortably in charge and in a dominant position on the scoreboard, they appeared to take their foot off the gas and could have paid dearly for it as Argentina scored two tries in the final minutes. Even though Ireland never looked like they were going to lose the match, they could ill afford such lapses in intensity against teams like New Zealand or in the upcoming Six Nations.
On that note, Ireland’s start to the Six Nations was a tense affair which almost saw the Men in Green record their first loss of the season. Ireland traditionally struggle to record a win in Paris and this year’s Six Nations opener was no exception. As the game headed into injury time, France were ahead by a point. However, in a remarkable display of composure and discipline, Ireland kept the ball for an extraordinary 41 phases, ultimately passing the ball to fly half extraordinaire Johnny Sexton for the drop goal to seal the win for Ireland 15-13. Once again in the second half Irish concentration had dipped allowing a try from French winger Teddy Thomas which appeared to have sealed the deal in France’s favor, especially as the French defence seemed impervious to repeated Irish assaults. It was a nail biting finish, but that run of possession by Ireland was a foretaste of how they would come to place a stranglehold on matches when they most needed it.
Ireland then returned to Dublin for three home games, starting with Italy. Italy put up a brave fight but were utterly eclipsed by Ireland who comfortably won the match 56-19. Next up it was a tight and intensely physical contest with Wales, but as the match wore on Ireland were clearly the side in charge. Furthermore the match highlighted the ability of winger Jacob Stockdale to seemingly score tries at will, as the youngster ran in two fine tries which would ultimately set him on the path to be the tournament’s top try scorer. Ireland’s last match at home was against a Scottish side buoyed by two superb wins against France and England. However, Ireland by now had really hit their stride in the tournament and completely shut down Scotland’s renowned attacking prowess with Stockdale continuing to be a try seeking missile. With a match in hand, their 28-8 defeat of the Scots meant Ireland had the Six Nations title in the bag. All that remained was the scintillating prospect of taking a Grand Slam at England’s expense at Twickenham.
Ireland’s Grand Slam decider at Twickenham was a fitting end to a remarkable Irish performance in the Six Nations. With the usually reliable Owen Farrell seeming unable to hit a barn door for England in the kicking department, Ireland controlled a thrilling match and put in a complete team performance which gave England very little opportunity. The Irish defence was outstanding, while once again their strike runners continued to cause havoc for their opponents. Ireland looked focused and disciplined for the full eighty minutes, and made an increasingly frustrated English side pay dearly for their mistakes. Ireland were starting to look unstoppable, with extraordinary depth across the park, and the only question that remained was could they take this remarkable form on the road and record a series win on a tough three Test end of year tour to Australia?
In a nail biting opening Test in Brisbane, Australia looked the fitter and hungrier side. Ireland just couldn’t unlock the Australian defence and all their strike threats out wide, who had proved so devastating during the Six Nations, seemed to struggle to find work in the series opener. In the end, Australia emerged comfortable winners at 18-9. Many had predicted that as good as Ireland were, this tour would be the bridge too far that burst the bubble of euphoria surrounding Irish rugby. However, the second Test proved the critics wrong as Ireland got themselves right back into the series. It was a Test for the ages, as both sides went hammer and tongs at each other and the match was on a knife edge for long periods of a thrilling eighty minutes. However, it would be Ireland who would ultimately get the edge on composure and put in a classy finish to see them emerge the winners at 26-21, setting up an epic series decider in Sydney the following weekend.
Ireland’s final game of a remarkable year showed just how important Irish fly half Johnny Sexton is to this Irish side. Just as he set up Ireland’s road to the Grand Slam at the death in the Six Nations opener against France, his goal kicking abilities and composure under pressure would ultimately be enough to nudge Ireland ahead of an exceptionally spirited Australian challenge. In a game that had fans around the world, regardless of who they supported on the edge of their seats, Ireland would squeak the win and the series 20-16. In this final hurrah of the season, they learnt a great deal about their own depth as well as the class and quality of their veterans against an exceptionally worthy and difficult opponent who had pushed them to the limits in all three Tests. To do this a long way from home and at the end of a long hard season, made the victory and Ireland’s achievements this season that much sweeter.
As we head into the upcoming season, there are a myriad of questions surrounding Ireland. Have they peaked too early? Will they ultimately bow out of next year’s World Cup with a whimper as history has dictated up till now? Do they finally have the depth to cope with the inevitable injuries and make them a real contender with the All Blacks for World Cup glory? The list goes on.
However, we think that this time Ireland does have the players and experience to go the distance, not only this season but also at the World Cup. We doubt they have peaked too early and feel that many of the younger players who stood out this year are only just getting into their stride. As for the depth issue, with the possible exception of back up for scrum half extraordinaire Conor Murray, Ireland appear to be exceptionally well stocked. There is the nagging worry that without Murray and Sexton on the field Ireland are only half the team they could be, but with Carberry likely to get much more exposure this year as Sexton’s understudy then at least some of that concern is being put to rest. Even without Sexton and Murray, Ireland has a forward pack that is the envy of the world, and a set of backs that can mix it with the world’s best in defence and on attack. In short, Ireland’s roll call for this coming season would be the stuff of fantasy for a majority of top Test team selectors. Ireland are in fantastic shape and provided they can keep building on the momentum of this past season, it is going to take a very special team to knock them off their perch. Coach Joe Schmidt’s down to earth focus is likely to keep the players in check mentally and thus prevent them from falling prey to the hype surrounding the team. As a result we very much doubt complacency is likely to be an issue with this rather extraordinary and committed team.
Match of the year – England vs Ireland – Twickenham – March 17th – England 15/Ireland 24
We were rather spoilt for choice in making this selection, as Ireland put in so many memorable performances this season. However, securing a Grand Slam at Fortress Twickenham is always a rather special achievement and one to be savored. Ireland looked the part from start to finish in a tough encounter as they sought to make history. It’s coping so well with this kind of pressure, especially away from home, that will hopefully make them a genuine contender next year in Japan.
Player of the year – Tadgh Furlong
Once again, an almost impossible choice here as there were so many brilliant individual performances that contributed to the way Ireland played this year. While Johnny Sexton may have been the glue that held this remarkable team together this year, allowing them to shine as individuals and as a unit, we just felt we had to give Furlong the honor this season. The Tighthead Prop is in our opinion the best in the world at the moment at his trade, and Furlong seemed to be in the thick of everything extraordinary that Ireland did this year. He seems to embody all the qualities that have become so impressive about this Irish squad, power, intensity, committment and a work rate that appears impervious to fatigue. Furlong had a massive year for Ireland and was one of our talking points after every Irish performance. Like many of Ireland’s new generation of players he seems to be just getting into his stride and we look forward to watching the chaos he is likely to cause opposition teams this coming season.
Player to watch in 2019 – James Ryan
Once again another tough call here with so many brilliant individual performances. However, it seems remarkable that this was only the 22 year-old lock’s first full season in the green jersey – such was the impact he had. A truly impressive talent who has a future ahead of him that is surely likely to equal that of Irish greats like the legendary Paul O’Connell. Expect him to be even better this year after the experience he has gained this past season.
We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Ireland’s best match of the year in our opinion. Their Grand Slam decider against England at Twickenham was a special victory, as it was only their third in the tournament’s history, and to secure it away from home was a genuine achievement. In a high pressure match with everything to play for, Ireland put in a complete performance that personified the very high levels of composure, discipline and execution that have now become trademarks of this team. Ireland are not second in the world by a judicious roll of fortune’s dice and last year’s fixture list. They have earned every last inch of it, and look set to continue to be the benchmark Northern Hemisphere team in 2019. They will need to push themselves even harder though and continue to raise the bar, as England and Wales will likely be snapping hard at their heels, with the dark horses of France and Scotland never very far away.
That concludes our look at the Northern Season – we’ll be doing the same for the Southern Hemisphere and Canada, USA, Fiji and Georgia at the end of the year. But for now bring on the Rugby Championship!!!!